|"There is a point
when you need to take your equipment and just use it. Don't pursue other
techniques. Take the equipment you have and go out there and use
it. Open your eyes and see."
A Painter Looks
at Photography: An Interview
with Alfred Currier
Interviewed by editor Brooks Jensen
Alfred Currier is a successful, nationally-known
fine art painter. He is also a long-time subscriber to LensWork and
a student of the creative process in art. He has written about the
creative process in art-making. I interviewed Al in 1998 and asked
him to look at photography from outside the photographic medium.
Brooks Jensen: First, tell us a little about your relationship to painting, how you got
started, and a bit about your career so the readers of LensWork can know
the context from which your ideas come.
I've had an interest in art my whole life. I was drawing as far back
as I can remember. I went on to art school after I graduated from
high school, which was more years ago than I care to remember! I
went to Columbus College of Art & Design for a couple of years, I attended
the American Academy of Art in Chicago where I got my degree in fine art.
After school, I started painting and doing other things until I was able
to support myself full time, which took until 1985.
BJ: The kind
of painting you do is...?
AC: My painting
would consist of impasto - very thick, applied paint, layers of
paint, very colorful, very textual. I've been noted for my color,
in particular. I don't have a name, for example impressionist or abstraction or anything like that.
BJ: Well, no one
likes to be pigeon-holed!
AC: Especially me!
BJ: The reason I
wanted to talk to you and publish it in LensWork is that I think
sometimes as photographers we have a tendency to look at our craft from
a particularly inbred perspective. Those of us who are involved in
photography mostly hang out with other photographers. We talk shop,
we talk equipment. I thought it might be interesting to have someone
who is involved in the creative path, involved in the artistic path, involved
in the attempt to communicate creatively, to look at photography from the
outside. When you think about the path you see creative photographers
are on, how does it differ from the path you see painters are on?
What are some of the lessons you think photographers might benefit from
learning from the world of painting?
AC: I think, in
my opinion, the craft of painting probably isn't any different in some
regards. When painters get together they also talk about who's got
the best price on linen, or the new brush from such-and-such a company
or that sort of thing. In that aspect, photographers and painters
are very close as far as their thoughts about the intricacies of their
individual crafts. Now, the one thing I see photographers have more
of as compared to painters, is that they have more gadgets available in
the marketplace. It seems that a lot of photographers tend toward
collecting these gadgets. Not that painters wouldn't do that, it's
just that they don't have so many choices!
BJ: If they did,
would they be seduced by it?
I've got brush holders and all kinds of things that are fun diversions.
BJ: But the application
of the creative side of activity is considerably different, isn't it?
BJ: A photographer
spends a great deal of time looking for something to photograph and once
they do they simply need to execute the details of craft efficiently and
effectively. How does this differ from painters?
AC: Well, we're
talking about art. As a painter, I'm more interested in the process of what I do more than the end product. Some painters are more interested
in the end product than in the process. One might be a fine art painter
and the other a commercial painter. The end products might look exactly
the same from a viewer's standpoint. But, only the artist within
knows whether or not it was fine art or not. It all has to do with process. It seems that art is primarily for the artist.
The artist could be a photographer or a painter; it doesn't make any difference.
BJ: It's so easy
to put pejorative labels on people, particularly in the photographic world.
The fine art guys look down on the commercial guys as somehow being crass
money-grubbers; the commercial guys look down on the fine art guys as being
snooty academics. It all does seem silly to me for the simple reason
that it all gets down to the process, as you say.
AC: The same thing
could be said for the painting world.
BJ: Tell me about
the process you try to invoke in your artwork When you feel the process
work, how do you know it? What does it feel like?
AC: There is a certain
point when you are involved in a painting when you lose all concept of
time and space and you are totally involved in your work. Then all
of a sudden, it's done! It's my feeling that when I'm done with that process
and I happen to get into that "zone", if you will, then I'm done with it.
I want it out of my sight. I don't really care about it. The
rest- as far as people viewing it goes- is almost entertainment,
rather than art. The art is in the producing of it.
BJ: So this might
be compared to a photographer who hangs on to the negative and who produces
the same print year after year. If you had to do this as a painter,
it would drive you crazy.
AC: I have, in another
way. I've reproduced some of my work in a process called giclee [pronounced
zghee-clay'] which is a digital iris print that I paint on top of.
I have a tough time with it. I have several images right now in my
studio that are not completed and I have a difficult time getting myself
excited about doing them.
BJ: Because the
path and the process is more interesting in original work?
AC: And that process
was there for the original but now it's over and gone.
BJ: It's the search
for "the zone" that is the core of your creative process.
AC: That's right.
BJ: So you've been
out grocery shopping or whatever and then you come to the studio to work.
You've got to somehow get yourself transported into that zone? Do
you do anything specific to do this? Do you have a ritual or habitual
activity that you use?
AC: I do.
Generally, I'll prepare for a session by putting out my paint and cleaning
all my brushes and simply get ready to paint. Then I'll sit in front
of the painting and just look at the work. Maybe I'll drink a cup
of coffee and just look at it. Sometimes I'll sit there with a magazine-
BJ: I'm sure!
AC: ...and then
I'll wait for the arrival of an "ah ha!" - a train of thought or a path
that looks like it might be worth starting on. Getting into that
zone is not a guarantee. It won't happen in all work nor all the
time. It's just something that I strive to achieve.
BJ: It's not as
though you can flip a switch and make it happen. Instead you can
prepare yourself to allow it to happen by quieting your mind and allowing
that transition to take place.
BJ: If you were
to advise a photographer as to how they might use the same ideas, how would
you suggest they go about it?
AC: Well, I'll go
by an observation. I traveled last year to Italy with a friend of
mind who is a photographer. We were on a little island called Burano.
I was painting and he was doing some photography and we'd meet occasionally
as we wandered around this place individually. There was this one
particular time I noticed him working away. He was doing something,
but to me it wasn't very apparent he was doing anything other than setting
up his camera. I walked up to talk with him and he asked me to go
away because he was in the middle of doing an image and didn't want to
be disturbed while he was working. I immediately left. I wasn't
insulted; he obviously was in that zone in that specific time.
BJ: In a similar
way, if you are involved in the studio and you're painting and you are
in the zone and someone comes knocking at the door or the phone rings,
does the bubble burst?
AC: Yes. It
does. But, sometimes I can recover, depending on how deep I am into
it. If I'm really in the zone, then I won't answer the door.
I'll turn the phone off. I won't allow that to happen.
BJ: You have to
be a little bit selfish with your time and guard your time and your energies
and guard them against intrusions.
AC: If you are an
artist, no matter what your medium is, you have to be selfish.
BJ: It's one thing
if you are in the studio, but if you are painting plein air and
you're out in the field -say in the midst of the plaza in Italy- how do
you accomplish this isolation there?
AC: For me, I don't
really consider that the same "fine art" as I do with my paintings done
in the studio. Painting outside is an acquired skill that involves
an organization of your equipment, and a certain applied technique.
Generally, I can talk and paint outside just fine, but the plein air painting is simply a reaction to a subject - sort of emulating that
subject. In the studio, I'm drawing more from within and trying to create more.
BJ: The studio painting
is more a self exploration and the plein air painting in the field
is more of an external exploration.
AC: Yes. I
agree. Often I'll just do quick sketches when I'm out in the world
-sketches in oil paint, nonetheless- and then bring those inside to the
studio and then think about using those as models for larger in-studio impasto paintings. The sketch painting might be 9x6 inches. Back in the studio,
I'll lay out a canvas that's 4x6 feet and begin by drawing the image on
the canvas and blocking it in with paint. Now, to me up to that point
it's merely craftwork. Then I start adding thick, applied color and
there I start modulating color -pushing textures around - and that's when
the creative part starts. At least this is how it works for my work. I can't speak for others.
BJ: And this is
the part where you begin to incur the risk and the painting has the possibility
then, for the first time, of failing.
Exactly. The earlier part is just skilled technique I've learned
over the years. I should emphasize that it's different for other
people. Some say you should only paint from life. I
just don't believe that.
BJ: There comes
a time where every artist -be they photographer or painter- has to step
back and take a look at what they are doing, and pass judgment as to whether
or not what they are doing is good or bad. I've read some of your
writing about this and you have some very definite ideas about what is
"good" and "bad" art.
AC: I think good and bad art is probably in the eyes of others. I really don't
believe there is any bad art. I do have feelings about my exhibitions.
If someone were to walk down a wall and see a painting and then stop in
front of one they really like, then that painting works. If they
stop in front of the next one and they really hate it, then that one works,
too. If they walk past it indifferently, hardly acknowledging that
it was even there, that's the one that doesn't work. If it creates
an emotion -either negative or positive- then the artist probably won.
As an analogy, I can offer this thought: Think
of yourself back in kindergarten or the first grade when you were painting.
You were painting for the process, not for the end product. What
happened with me was that I drew something that someone liked and I got
praise for it. So, the next time, I tried to make it better.
After several years, I sort of became the class artist. But I started
to paint and draw for the wrong reasons. I was doing it for the approval
of others. Now I'm 55 years old and it wasn't until about 10 years
ago that I realized I had accomplished certain skills and techniques.
I'd practiced and developed my skills so I could paint like I wanted to.
Once I had accomplished that, I didn't think there was anything for me
after that. I could paint like the artists I admired -say, like John
Singer Sargent. If you practice like this long enough, you might
even be better! But there will only ever be one John Singer Sargent.
What I tried to do from that point was to establish my own identity.
In thinking about that and trying to decide where my art was going, then
I realized I needed to get back to that child within and start producing
work for me and not for other people. That's what I mean by doing
art for the process of doing. When that happened, and I started painting
for me and getting more honest with my work, that's when my paintings started
BJ: From your perspective,
then, a good or bad piece of art doesn't have anything to do with the art.
It has to do with whether or not its truthful to what's going on inside
you as the art-maker.
AC: I think so.
BJ: And that's the
only standard by which a person can judge the art...
AC: So there's probably
no room for critics. (Chuckles)
BJ: I have a few
quotes that you've written that might apply to photography and I'd like
to have you comment upon and amplify them if you will. You say, "When
examining your own work, you must be aware of the difference between technique
and the exploratory process."
AC: Sometimes it
molds together, in fact, just about all the time. I'll probably start
out in a frame of technique. I'll apply paint using a skill I've
acquired, and then there is some point when you are involved in that technique
when it becomes exploratory. That's what I'm looking for -that point.
I'm a figurative painter, but I don't think figuratively. I lay out
my painting with images that are recognizable subjects. From that
point on I get lost in the texture and the color.
BJ: You have said,
"When trying to explain art and the creative process there's a point at
the end of the day when you're tired and about to go to sleep that you
should be aware of."
AC: Well, yes.
There are different ways you can achieve this. We've all learned
things in life. Sometimes there are barriers. There are walls
around us that don't allow us to go beyond what we normally would do.
Generally, for me, I find at the end of the day I'll be engaged in something
else-maybe the TV is on or I'm looking around at the painting on the wall-and
suddenly I'll have some insight. That's when the barriers have come
down and something has come through. Sometimes this happens just
before I go to sleep. I keep a notebook next to my bed. I'll
get a thought just as I am drifting off and I'll write them down.
If you don't have that notebook next to your bed, those thoughts will be
lost. The next morning when I start out fresh I can apply the ideas
I've had from the notebook.
BJ: Some people
get the idea that creativity can happen on demand. They are on vacation now or it's the weekend now and they are supposed to be creative because
the opportunity is here, now. They are supposed to be able to turn
it on like a switch. When it doesn't happen, they get upset and feel
as though the muse has abandoned them. But, I think you're right
in that the muse doesn't pay attention to the clock or even the rhythms
of our bodies. The ideas crop up from who-knows-where, at the oddest
moments. Sometimes it's the most creative artists who simply recognize
AC: How many times
have you been driving down the road, camera in your car, and you go by
an inspiring image and you think, "Someday I'll have to go back and do
that." Then you do go back and you find the light's not right, or the subject
is gone. You missed it! You have to seize that opportunity
at that time.
BJ: Another quote
is, "Each painting is the breeding ground for the next."
AC: I often get
on a run. One painting snowballs some concepts that open the next.
Maybe it's not applicable to that particular painting; maybe I've just
scratched the surface of an idea. On the next painting I might push
it a little more, and the next one a little more.
BJ: I've often thought
that the photographer who doesn't produce any work can't produce his hundredth
piece of work, and that might be the brilliant one. So the only way
to get to the hundredth piece is to do the first ninety-nine, even though
they might be just warm-ups for the real one!
BJ: You've also
said, "The key to education and its effect on art is to know what boundaries
have been established and then blast through them." Are you talking about
educational boundaries, self-inflicted boundaries, or both?
There are some artists who feel that education is everything. When
they get done with their education, then they can begin being an artist.
My feeling is that with education there are walls that are put up in front
of you. You need to be able to go beyond that. Some artists
feel that education is bad and they won't listen to outside influences.
They waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel over and over again.
Really, we are all educated, just not all in the same way. Whatever
education you have, you need to know what your boundaries are and be able
to go through it. I know a large format photographer who feels that
everything he puts in his final image must be in his viewfinder- period.
He prints only full frame. To me, I think he has limited himself
simply because he hasn't allowed himself to go beyond that. He has
put up boundaries that might be compromising his artwork. We have
to be able to open our minds.
BJ: As a painter,
if you were going to give advice to photographers, what would that be,
looking at photography from the painter's perspective.
AC: There is a point
when you need to take your equipment and just use it. Don't pursue
other techniques. Take the equipment you have and go out there and
use it. Open your eyes and see.
Paintings Questions and comments welcome to Alfred Currier
Learn about LensWork at www.lenswork.com